Trump needs a plan for Israel’s confrontation with Iran

Foreign Policy | The ongoing debate among experts as to whether Washington has a strategy for dealing with the Syrian proxy war in the wake of missile strikes by U.S., British, and French forces on alleged Syrian chemical weapons facilities masks a far more urgent strategic need: a coherent approach to the increasingly volatile confrontation between Israel and Iran. Israel’s downing of an armed drone, its loss of an F-16 fighter jet — the first such loss in years — and its strike on Iranian targets in Syria are only part of the challenge that confronts the United States in particular.

The Israeli-Russian relationship is becoming increasingly tense. The possibility that Iran might establish one or more bases in Syria, as Russia already has done, poses as much of a threat to Jordan as it does to Israel. And the possibility that Israel might face a three-front war with Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which receive Iranian support, and Syrian-based Iranian forces could well result in the United States being called in to Israel’s rescue, as it was during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

Ever since the civil war began seven years ago, Israel has pursued a policy of what might be termed cautious intervention. It has only launched operations into Syria when it determined that Iran was shipping increasingly sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah, when it was responding to artillery attacks by one or another jihadi militias based in Syria, or, as was recently the case, when it attacked Iranian forces on a Syrian air base in retaliation for the launching of an armed drone into Israeli territory.

Israel has never taken sides in the civil war itself — indeed, for several years, the Israelis appeared to prefer that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad survive in power, fearing that any alternative would be far worse. Israel therefore avoided appearing to be at odds with Russia, Assad’s great-power backer. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a regular visitor to Moscow, while his defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, whose native language is Russian, had an even longer-standing relationship with the Kremlin leadership. Moreover, despite the overt hostility between it and Iran, Israel did not attempt to undermine the Iranians in Syria as long as they confined themselves to supporting Assad.

All that has now changed. Iran has increasingly entrenched itself inside Syria and is not about to depart anytime soon. On the contrary, Iran may already be laying the groundwork for a permanent presence on its Syrian client’s territory. Moreover, the Israelis are increasingly concerned that the Russians, whom Israel previously — and perhaps quixotically — hoped would counterbalance and restrain Tehran, now appear either unwilling or unable to do so.

Israel’s public position remains that Moscow understands its predicament and will not interfere with Israeli operations, whose objective is to secure its own territory. The Israelis have also signaled to Russia, however, that they will not allow it to constrain their operations. As Lieberman has asserted, “We will not allow Iranian consolidation in Syria. We won’t allow any restriction when it comes to Israel’s security interests.”

These are brave words. In fact, the Israelis fear both “Iranian consolidation,” as Lieberman puts it, and Russian interference in their operations. Coupled with Hezbollah’s growing strength, and the weekly Hamas-inspired protests in Gaza, Israel faces the specter of a three-front war for the first time since 1967. Moreover, the immediate Iranian threat may not affect Israel at all. A powerful and permanent Iranian presence in Syria would actually be a far greater threat to Jordan. If an Iranian-inspired insurrection, along the lines of what Tehran has been attempting in Bahrain for some years, were to topple Jordan’s King Abdullah, Israel could then face a threat on four fronts.

Where might Washington fit into this picture? In one sense, it does not. Russia and Iran are increasingly becoming the arbiters of the Middle East, while U.S. President Donald Trump, by pushing for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces in Syria, is on the verge of repeating in that country the very same mistake his predecessor committed in Iraq. Yet the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from Syria would be far greater than those of former President Barack Obama’s withdrawal, because Russia was not a factor in Iraq and the Israelis did not see Iran’s heavy presence there as a direct threat to their security.

A complete U.S. withdrawal from Syria could result in two outcomes: one bad, the other worse.

A complete U.S. withdrawal from Syria could result in two outcomes: one bad, the other worse.

The bad outcome would be an Israeli preemptive strike on all Iranian forces in Syria. Hezbollah would certainly retaliate on behalf of Iran, and the Iranians would certainly fire a missile barrage at Israel as well. Whether Israel’s vaunted missile defense system could cope with missile attacks on two fronts is open to question. America’s own missile defenses would be called in to assist Israel. Since the most likely anti-missile systems would be sea-based, U.S. naval forces would run the risk of themselves becoming a target for Iranian or Hezbollah missiles.

An even worse outcome would be a preemptive strike on Israel by Hezbollah and the Iranians, in coordination with Hamas, with Moscow’s support. In this case, the possibility of a great-power confrontation, along the lines of the U.S.-Soviet standoff in 1973, would be very real. Yet another possibility could be the above-noted Iranian-inspired coup against King Abdullah, which would itself be a preliminary to an all-out conflict with Israel.

Trump’s senior defense and military advisors no doubt have thought through these and other bad scenarios. They are the ones arguing for a residual U.S. presence in Syria. Trump, on the other hand, would not recognize a strategy if it ran him over — he is completely transactional. All he sees is an American presence in Syria that he wants to bring to an end, come what may. Unless his Defense Department advisors can bring him around, the United States may well come to rue the day that it found itself not only once again rushing to the aid of Israel but fully engaged in yet another war in the Middle East, this time with both Russia and Iran on the other side.